10 ways newspapers could do better

Every leadership team of every news organization should take this list from Inc. of what customers will pay more for and rate themselves. My sense from reading industry news is that, as a whole, newspapers rate a C-, and I’m probably being generous. Here’s my evaluation. I wish you would weigh in.

1. Your product is easier to buy. A-. Generally speaking, I think it’s easy to order a newspaper subscription. Newspaper boxes are ubiquitous, although finding six bits is sometimes a struggle. Websites are free, although this is rapidly changing. Expect the grade to go down when more paywalls go up. (Actually, it’s harder to stop newspapers from coming. Many newspaper companies continue to deliver them after cancellations in hopes that you’ll come back.).

2. Your product arrives more quickly. C-. More quickly than what? Delivery is rigid. The paper is delivered at about the same time every day. Do some customers want it at a different time? Yes. Do papers meet that need? Rarely. Websites load fast enough, although some are slowed by too many ads doing too many things.

Improvements: Get newspapers to home earlier. Make delivery more efficient so that papers don’t pile up even if you’ve stopped them. On websites, lose the ads that move all over the screen or that pop up when you roll over them, which usually occurs accidentally.

3. Your product has a “must have” feature. D. Local news? News no one else has? Many customers have voted with their feet on that must have. The news may be local, but it is either a commodity available elsewhere for free or it isn’t compelling enough to pay for, much less a premium. Some papers can pick up extra coin from charging for premium content on their websites, but they aren’t close to being dominant.

Improvements: Stop thinking that local is the answer in and of itself. Local is no good if it isn’t compelling. Aim to have every story make a difference in the lives as many people as possible. Actively listen to your readers. Make the website different from the newspaper. It’s used differently so that content should be different — more visual, more interactive, more open. If you have a paywall, have premium content behind that wall that is worth paying for.

4. Your product burnishes the buyer’s reputation. A-. Newspapers have believed that they make readers smarter. I believe that, too. Actually, it is more likely that readers feel more informed when reading the news, whether it is from a printed product or digital. I know my students who are required to keep up with the news routinely tell me that they are surprised to find newspapers so interesting. Whether newspapers get credit for that is another issue.

Improvements: That newspapers make readers smarter is declining as readership declines. Break big stories that people can get only from you. Think Sports Illustrated and the Oklahoma State story. Do more of that and less of the turn-of-the-screw government coverage. Rebrand yourself.

5. Your product has a lower cost of ownership. D. You have to dispose of a paper every day. You have to recycle it, too. It stacks up as you await recycling truck. It weighs on you. Not me, but I know it from hearing the tale of woe from many people. D.

Improvements: Papers do bring in the bulk of the revenue, but it’s going away. You know it. Invest a bigger chunk of that profit in mobile. Everyone knows that’s the road the customers have headed down. Are you going to go with them?

6. Your customer service is more friendly. F. Ever try to get a reporter or editor on the phone? It’s near impossible. And when you do, you often regret it. The carrier doesn’t have to miss your house too often for apologies to lose their impact. Customer service isn’t in a news organization’s wheel house.

Improvements: Hire real people answer phones. Change the embattled culture. Employees are afraid — they see the layoffs in the industry. Many have lived through furloughs and no pay raises. You know the deal — unhappy, scared employees don’t exude confidence and cheer.

7. The price difference isn’t worth the hassle. A. No competitor to speak of that charges. And when the price doesn’t increase more than pocket change per day, it isn’t that noticeable.

8. The customer likes you personally. C. Uh-oh. Everyone hates the local paper. Editorials that don’t conform to your opinion. News stories that annoy you with their tone or their angle. Still, many people love the paper. I’m calling it a draw.

Improvements: Hit the speaking circuit. Talk to people about what you do. Be real. Be friendly. Smile. Apologize for errors. Speak with every social and service and book club. Sponsor community events. Hold community forums about your news coverage and about community issues. Become the biggest charitable fund-raiser in town. Change the mindset.

9. The customer wants something else from you. NA.

10. The customer is rapidly expanding. NA.


One thought on “10 ways newspapers could do better

  1. I disagree on No. 9; it’s truly applicable and why we have the problems we currently have. People want news but not what we’re packaging and calling news. Which is why I’d say editors and reporters need to huddle and reconfigure their definition of news. It will take give and take on both sides, but should be lead by the editor as the reader’s representative. It means thinking of news as more than the journalist’s prerogative — revolutionary, right? It’s not as far off as we’d like to think. But editors must hurry, or publishers will do it for them.

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